In Syria the government of Bashar al-Assad has managed to survive, with intense international controversy over who should have the unenviable task of governing Syria. Is it likely that the total collapse of the central government in Syria will directly facilitate the strengthening of ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates? The latter scenario may likely lead to the failure of political reform, and subsequently endanger the future democratic development of the region as a whole. Is there any logic, and on the ground political reality, in temporarily sustaining the government of Bashar al-Assad as a realistic means to eradicate radical Islamist insurgency? Does ISIS or the Bashar-al-Assad regime present a greater threat to regional, and possible even world, stability? Does a clear dictatorship provide any short term benefits in the face of the ISIS threat? This is a daunting and non-trivial issue that has to be addressed.
The Assad regime stands rightfully accused of committing human rights violations and keeping power tightly with the Alawite minority. The regime’s close political ties to both Iran and Russia add complexity. The West has been accused of ambivalence, insofar as the US and its main allies championed the human rights issue in Syria, while chose simultaneously to be relatively silent in 2011 when confronted with the repression of Shiites in Bahrain.
The death of Hafez al-Assad in June 2000 did not destabilize Syria. The transition of power from Hafez to his son, Bashar, was seamless. Baathist secularism guaranteed the protection, and thus earned the support, of religious minorities, including Druze, Shiite Muslims and Maronite Christians. This legacy of minority protection is reflected in the support lent to the Syrian government by Syrian Christians in the current civil war.
Sadly, this ‘protection’ eventually devolved into sectarian corruption, with members of the Sunni Arab majority often denied the economic/social mobility afforded to minority groups. The Assad family has traditionally relied heavily on the Alawite community to bolster regime security forces. Chronic Syrian instability is directly attributable to Assad’s role, both in the current civil war as well as during the post-conflict reconstruction period. The key two questions today are: For Syrian security to be re-established and political reform implemented, must the Syrian regime decisively win the ongoing civil war? Second, is it an accurate assessment that all terrorist groups must be crushed and security re-established before any serious attempt at a political transition, including the retirement of Bashar al-Assad, can be made?
Any political fallout following an Assad regime collapse would extend beyond the borders of Syria and further destabilize neighboring countries. While anti-government forces have seized over 80 percent of Syrian territory, the overwhelming majority of Syrian urban centers remain under government control, including 12 of Syria’s 14 provincial capital cities. There are two provincial capitals completely outside regime control: Islamic State terrorists succeeded in seizing ar-Raqqa in 2013, while ‘moderate’ rebels fighting alongside the Al-Nusra Front wrestled away the provincial capital of Idlib in March of 2015. Should the major cities of Syria (Damascus, Homs, Deraa, Latakia and Tartous, to name a few) fall into the hands of ISIS, or their ideological brethren, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front, the consequences may be catastrophic.
The Syrian insurgency is not monolithic. The three most capable rebel groups are the Islamic State, the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front, and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Absent from this list are the ‘moderate’ rebels, or the Free Syrian Army. The FSA has long since ceased to exist in an independent or militarily significant capacity. FSA fighters often defect to Al-Nusra Front, and in large numbers. The United States’ policy of backing the ‘moderate’ rebels appears equivocal, since there is an inconsequential amount of moderates to support.
Syria held unprecedented multi-candidate presidential elections during the summer of 2014. These elections were held despite the ongoing wartime climate. Analysts agree that the viability of the opposition candidates remained questionable at best. These elections were the first pluralistic presidential elections in Syrian history, and were endorsed by an international monitoring group.
The Syrian regime is the antithesis of modern civilized government. However, is it nevertheless a short term pragmatic and viable alternative to Al-Nusra or the rapidly advancing Islamic State? Neither ISIS nor Al-Nusra are likely to hold elections of any kind, join the international community, or adopt international arms control treaties such as the CWC. The next President of the United States will have to face these stark realities, and make decisions.